Current Affairs

The Help – Kathryn Stockett – 10/10

“I look at Aibileen and am reminded, once again, the risk she’s taking talking to me.”

I read The Help back in October, at the same time as watching the film, and I really should have reviewed it back then because it would have made my Best of 2011 list.

This is a really heart-warming tale (and yes, I know, there’s been considerable controversy about its selective representation of the lives of African American domestic workers, but skipping right along…) about a young white journalist and two black maids who are determined to right (and write) some wrongs. Skeeter Phelan comes home from university, annoyed that all her friends have dropped out to get married, and is distraught to find that the family maid who raised her has apparently quit. Skeeter befriends Aibileen, who works for Skeeter’s childhood friend Elizabeth, and decides to write a book with Aibileen and other maids working in Jackson about what it’s really like to work as The Help in white Mississippi households. The women have to overcome suspicion, segregatory policies and their own distrust of one another for their project to succeed.

The book is excellent. It is the characters on whom the success of the book relies. The plot is merely a skeleton on which to hang the interaction of three women in difficult circumstances, and becomes a collection of anecdotes they tell one another. The historical context is eye-opening; life as a young white woman in 1950s Mississippi was very different to my own experience in Europe – I would have gone batty organising cake sales and benefit dances and hemming curtains. The three main characters (and narrative points of view) have very distinct voices; Minny is such a forceful character that it is a relief that she is given less “airtime” than Skeeter and Aibileen.

The writing is deft and elegant without being showy

“Stuart needs ‘space’ and ‘time’ as if this were physics and not a human relationship”

The film is extraordinarily faithful to the book, and I was not annoyed to have watched the film first. Emma Stone is an excellent Skeeter, all awkwardness and wit and elbows; Viola Davis as Aibileen is the picture of restraint and dignity, and Octavia Spencer is just wonderful as loudmouth Minny. I love (love) Allison Janney after her work as C.J. Cregg in The West Wing; she plays a very difficult and less sympathetic character in this film (Skeeter’s mother) but her performance is no less admirable.

Given more space in a 453-page novel than a 2-hour box office hit, some of the characters are fuller in the novel; Hilly is a more sympathetic character because we see her being a wonderful mother as well as a terrible racist and snob, Elizabeth is much unhappier in the book, constantly trying to dress up her life, very thin, unable to mother her children.

Other reviews/blog posts: Breathe Fiction, Amused by Books, BermudaOnion and Sandy on the film; Amused by Books, Reading in the Bath and New Dork Review of Books on the book; Amy McKie on the historical failing of the book and a more balanced reading list; a statement from the Association of Black Women Historians on the lack of balance in the book; an NPR article on Eudora Welty’s Where is the Voice Coming From?, a short story dealing with the same events as The Help

Additional info:
This  copy was kindly lent to me by my friend The German.
Publisher: Berkley, 453 pages
Order The Help from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.
Current Affairs, Prizes, Short stories

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl – Yiyun Li – 6/10

“‘The moment you admit someone into your heart you make yourself a fool,’ she said. ‘When you desire nothing, nothing will defeat you. Do you understand, Moyan?'”

In this highly-acclaimed volume of short stories, Li examines what it is to be a girl in modern China; adoptive daughters, female soldiers, old spinsters and marriages of convenience all come under consideration in her spare prose, in her little vignettes which rarely touch on the plot and involve few men. Mostly, this is a collection of reflections on men’s and women’s different roles in life and how women deal with that difference.

This has been very favourably reviewed by a number of bloggers (full list of those I’ve come across at the bottom of the review) but somehow the magic didn’t reach me. I found the recurring theme of how hard women have it in life wearing (although I don’t deny its truth, certainly in certain countries) and tired of the almost stereotypical women presented – there were a number of spinsters, tired and world-weary, a group of busybody investigating old hens, a woman acting on a teenage crush… had this been written by a man I would have flung it out the window in disgust.

Li has a beautiful turn of phrase, I won’t dispute that:

“Spring in Beijing was as brief as a young girl’s grief over a bad haircut”

“She had always liked to talk about her own death as if it was an event to look forward to, her secret superstition being that death, like a man, would make itself conveniently unavailable once it knew it was desired.”

“Hanfeng looked at Siyu’s face, detecting a familiar absentmindedness. His mother, too, asked him questions to which she seemed scarcely interested in knowing the answers. He wondered if this happened to women who lived by themselves.”

but her characters were often unsympathetic: in the first story, the narrator is quite heartless about a funeral

“It is a hassle to travel for a wedding, but more so for a funeral. One has to face strangers’ tears and, worse, one has to repeat words of condolence to irrelevant people.”

while her mentor bluntly reveals that the girl is adopted

“‘You do know that you are not your parents’ birth daughter, don’t you?’ She turned and faced me. ‘And you do know that no matter how nicely they treat you, they can’t do much for your education, don’t you?'”

I am very much the odd one out in perceiving this collection to be less than remarkable; I suspect it is my inexperience with the short story format. I would expect this collection to appeal to fans of an sparser writing style (Eva suggested Kazuo Ishiguro as a companion author and I wholeheartedly agree) and those interested in feminist literature.

Other reviews: The Indextrious Reader, Like Fire, A Striped Armchair, Reading the Short Story, Madeleine

Additional info:
This Kindle copy was kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Order Gold Boy, Emerald Girl from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.

The Partly Cloudy Patriot – Sarah Vowell – 7/10

“I prefer the pen to the sword, so I’ve always been more of a Jeffersonhead”

(stolen and butchered from Amazon) In “The Partly Cloudy Patriot,” Sarah Vowell travels through the American past and, in doing so, investigates the dusty, bumpy roads of her own life, wondering why she is happiest when visiting the sites of bloody struggles like Salem or Gettysburg? Why do people always inappropriately compare themselves to Rosa Parks? Her essays confront a wide range of subjects, themes, icons, and historical moments: Ike, Teddy Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton; Canadian Mounties and German filmmakers; Tom Cruise and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; twins and nerds; the Gettysburg Address, the State of the Union, and George W. Bush’s inauguration. The result is a teeming and engrossing book, capturing Vowell’s memorable wit and her keen social commentary.

Given how much I love the West Wing (gratuitous clip below from the end of Season 2, which gives me goosebumps every time… but will make no sense if you don’t know the show)

… it is not surprising that I found this light touch introduction to American politics quite interesting, particularly mixed with Vowell’s thoughts on life in general (I do rather like thematic memoirs).

Vowell mixes her thoughts on historical and modern politics with her personal experiences of politics (such as going to see George W. Bush’s inauguration – she considers the Florida hanging chads a travesty) and other topics. I particularly enjoyed her treatise on nerds and nerdiness:

“Being a nerd, which is to say going too far and caring too much about a subject, is the best way to make friends I know.”

My book nerdiness is justified.

Vowell makes it cool to care: she is outraged when people insist on comparing themselves to Rosa Parks despite being in far less difficult situations, she somehow justifies the continued existence of an underground cafeteria at a national park and carefully examines the pros and cons of twinness. There is an occasional punchline, but mostly the comedy simmers along in a slightly sarcastic and/or self-deprecating tone which bubbles through every now and again.

Maybe it was the deckle edges. Maybe it was the presumed knowledge of American history (I know zip about Gettysburg). Maybe I got fed up with Vowell’s style. I can’t quite put my finger on why this only gets 7/10 rather than 8 or 9, but there you go. I wanted to read this in audio but the London library system didn’t have it, so I persevered in print – Teresa’s opinion that Vowell’s style is much more effective in audio does not surprise me.

Side note: I find deckle edges incredibly frustrating. They may look pretty and old-world-ish, but I can’t turn the page!!!!

Additional info:
This was a personal copy from Bookmooch.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 196 pages (hardback)
Order The Partly Cloudy Patriotfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.
Kindle, Thriller

The Human Race – O. C. Heaton – 2/10 (DNF)

In this thriller by O. C. Heaton, Uma Jakobsdottir has developed some world-altering technology, and British entrepreneur Ethan Rae is helping her to expand it. But when Uma’s office is broken into and two journalists are killed driving through a storm in Iceland, it seems that someone with rather sinister intentions has found out about their little project…

If that seems a rather scant synopsis, it’s for two reasons:  I had serious difficulties with this book (to be enumerated below) and that is as far as the turbo-charged plot had got, 25% of the way in; and it’s a serious thriller in that every page reveals critical plot points which can’t be revealed in the synopsis for spoiler reasons!

OK, the reasons I didn’t get on with this book:

1. It was not what it was marketed as: the synopsis from Amazon is

 “Ever had a secret so big that the very knowledge of it consumed you? Uma Jakobsdóttir has one. A huge one. And if it falls into the wrong hands it could obliterate mankind. Unfortunately two men have discovered it. Ethan Rae, Britain’s richest man, is counting on Uma’s secret to finally seal his position as the greatest deal maker of all time.

Across the Atlantic, Samuel Reynolds III, playboy CEO of Reynolds Air, is battling to keep the airline his granddaddy built alive. Once the largest company in America, it’s now facing bankruptcy as the fallout of 911 cripples the airline industry. He desperately needs Uma’s secret to ensure its survival.

From the leafy suburbs of London to the frozen wastelands of Iceland, in the shadow of Ground Zero and under the barren dryness of the Mojave Desert, both men will stop at nothing to get what they want. There can only be one winner and the fate of the human race hangs in the balance as they battle it out. The race is on…”

which doesn’t indicate the hefty dollop of science fiction that this book contains. I think readers deserve an honest description; I’ve written about misleading marketing before.

2. Very short chapters coupled with an inordinately long expository introduction (first 25% of the book and counting). Short chapters (as I’ve written about before) drive me crazy and often here the chapter break was simply so that we could have a new date and time at the start of the chapter; there’s got to be a more elegant way to indicate a small change in time.

3. Serious editorial oversights: a couple of errors which ought to have been caught by a copy-editor (it can’t be 1815 in New York and 1015 in Reykjavik – the truth would be vice versa) and large sections which should have had a red pen taken to them energetically (“Next, he called his assistant, Scott Adams, with the news that his plans for the next three days had changed, and to rearrange all of his appointments. Scott quickly ran through the changes to Ethan’s schedule and rang off, having confirmed that he would call a limo to pick Ethan up…” DO YOU SEE WHY THIS MAKES ME STABBY???). Throw in some stilted dialogue (“I still cannot fully believe what we saw today…” from one young, cool journalist to another) and there is not enough tea in my kitchen to make me happy about this book.

4. I was taught at school that dying characters can’t bequeath thoughts: “The last sound he remembered, as the four-by-four toppled to meet the patiently waiting lava fields below, was his passenger’s piercing scream, followed by a blinding flash”. Also, surely he would hear the sound, not remember it, as she pre-deceased him by only a few seconds. Grump.

This book would appeal to:

– people who were not in my Year 8 English class with Mrs Highfield.

– end-of-the-world thriller devotees who don’t mind some scifi with their plot

Cover image comparison

This book actually came to my attention via Judith’s Ugly Covers Competition, which featured the original cover:

The book is now into its second edition and onto the Kindle with a much better cover:

which, for me, is much less repulsive and conveys the idea of the the world falling apart… Not quite sure which of our characters is supposed to be holding the world in his hands (which reminds me of this most excellent West Wing episode), but there we go. Much better cover.

Additional info:
This Kindle copy was kindly provided by the publisher via Leeswammes Blog.
Publisher: Rookwood Publishing
Order The Human Race from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.
Advent with Austen, Fluff

Darcy’s Story – Janet Aylmer – 8/10

“His feelings of anxiety as he slipped out of the house that afternoon were not based on any apprehensions that his application to Miss Bennet might be rejected.”

This is exactly what it says on the tin – Darcy’s perspective during the timeline of Pride & Prejudice. Despite my misgivings about fan fiction on Monday, and my apathetic remarks about P. D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley on Tuesday, I am forced to recant – I really enjoyed this. Aylmer does very well to keep an Austen-like tone while telling a different story, and she has clearly done painstaking work to make her novel fit with the original seamlessly.

Aylmer makes a valid point – it is hard to see how Darcy turns from the proud, “she is tolerable, I suppose” prig at the Meryton assembly to the man who bribes Wickham to marry Lydia in order to save the Bennet family name, and then marries Lizzy – independent, headstrong Lizzy, who will marry for both love and money, and nothing less. By following Darcy for a much longer period of time (although this novel is not overly long, at 224 pages), we get a much fuller picture of his character – headstrong, independent, very fixed in his own convictions (of course the proposal scene is quite amusing).

I wanted to loathe this book. I wanted it to be poor writing, overly romantic (it was a little), poor characterisation, but I can’t lay any of those charges at its door. I was engrossed and read it straight through (admittedly while on a train without internet…).

Somehow it feels like a travesty to give an author I’ve never heard of before more points out of 10 than P. D. James, but that is what I’m going to do. This is my blog and I make the rules.

(TRC also read this and for once we agree. It’s not a literary masterpiece, but it achieves exactly what it sets out to do.)

And now I am DESPERATE to re-watch the BBC 1995 Pride & Prejudice. Ghastly Mrs. Bennet and all.

Read for Advent with Austen.

 Additional info:
This was a present for my birthday.
Publisher: Copperfield Books, 224 pages (paperback)
Order Darcy’s Story from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.
Advent with Austen, Current Affairs, Thriller

Death Comes To Pemberley – P. D. James – 6/10

“Darcy, who was standing by the window, gave a sudden exclamation”

Two great dames of literature meet – Ms Austen and Ms James. P. D. James has imagined Elizabeth and Darcy settled at Pemberley, two fine boys in the nursery and the Bingley settled not too far away at Highmarten. Georgiana is growing up and entertaining suitors, and the household is preparing for the great annual Lady Anne’s Ball when a coach arrives at full speed late at night, from which Lydia emerges, hysterical about a fight between Wickham and Denny. The ensuing investigation dredges up all the bad blood we witnessed in Pride & Prejudice.

Firstly, as I wrote yesterday, I am generally not a fan of these “what happened after Lizzy and Darcy marry” stories as they are generally (based on my short experience with Jane Austen Made Me Do It) a bit sordid and voyeuristic. Fortunately there was no such discomfort in DCTP, although the ending was spectacularly twee and along those lines.

James does a sterling effort of keeping the characters as they were in P&P, although Darcy is really the hero of this narration and he is frequently unsure, not something I would have described him as in P&P. Maybe that is the point of P&P, that he learns to doubt his first impressions. Anyhow. The voice of the narration is very Austen-like and James spends a long time establishing her credentials as an Austen imitator before she brings in the mystery.

My objection to the mystery was that the solution was too obscure and while credible, too convoluted; the obvious version of events was built up and adhered to so strongly for so much of the book that the eventual revelation felt a little deus ex machina rather than an alternative interpretation of the facts.

Writing this review, I realise that I am struggling to say many good things. I thought the book perfectly passable. I will be passing it on to someone I am confident will enjoy it. I don’t find fault with the writing, any huge character changes or a weak plot; I just wasn’t thrilled.

Other links/reviews: A little article at the BBC, Gaskella, Karen at BookBath

Read for Advent with Austen.

 Additional info:
This was a personal copy, recently bought with much excitement!.
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 320 pages (paperback)
Order Death Comes to Pemberley from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.

Cold Hit – Linda Fairstein – 6/10

“To them it was pure American moxie”

When Assistant D.A. Alex Cooper is called to a police scene by the Hudson river, she knows that it’s not going to be pretty. The body of an obviously affluent young woman, graphically and grotesquely arranged after death, is pulled from the water. Cooper and her sidekicks Mercer and Chapman must figure out who killed Deni Caxton, and even more – why?

This fits the description of a police procedural to the T. We follow Alex Cooper through her daily life for a few weeks while the murder of a society hostess and art collecting prodigy is investigated. It did not surprise me to discover that Fairstein had worked (it turns out, during quite a high-powered career) as an assistant D.A. herself, given the familiarity with the daily life of such a law enforcer that she portrays.

Cooper manages a pretty tight cast through this thriller; Cooper, Chapman and Mercer make a great investigative triumvirate and I was pleased to see a female police investigator with her head screwed on properly (unlike the one in James Patterson’s The Quickie, which I nearly threw across the room…). There’s a reasonable rotation of bad guys (and I didn’t guess the true one) and an excellent sense of setting in the slightly seedy art world of New York.

I have a few complains about the writing: Mike Chapman and Sgt Mercer both work on this case – but Fairstein alternately refers to Mike Chapman as “Mike” and “Chapman”, but to Mercer only as “Mercer”. It was quite confusing at the start of the book when the reader is still trying to get the characters straight in their head. Additionally, at the climax, Cooper has an armed guard. Of course it is when the armed guard lets her go in somewhere unguarded because they have an administrative phone call to take, that it all goes wrong (not a spoiler because there’s not much of the book left by then).

Reasonable writing, decent plot, characterisation of subsidiary characters was a bit lacking although I liked Cooper. I think this could have been better.

Additional info:
This was a personal copy.
Publisher: Warner Books, 413 pages (paperback)
Order Cold Hit (Alexandra Cooper Series) from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.